Fulsome has a useful meaning as insincerely gushing, cloying and annoyingly excessive. I've written here in the past that this meaning is under siege. Now I'd say it's on life support.
Many people use fulsome as a synonym for effusive, which is unfortunate, since effusive does that job quite nicely and fulsome is needed elsewhere. Many others use it simply to mean full or complete. "For example," reader Norman MacInnes writes, "I spotted the following sentence in a judgment posted on the Ontario Court of Appeal website today: 'While the few authorities to this point are very helpful, in my view, the degree of analysis is now more involved when a more fulsome consideration is given to the legislation and to more recent legal authority.' The following sentence was posted today on a law firm website: 'For a more fulsome discussion of this case, please see this week's Podcast.' They do not seem to be aware that the primary meaning of fulsome is 'excessively and insincerely flattering.' "
Perhaps, he suggests, pretentiousness is at work. "The word 'full' just doesn't sound impressive enough; 'fulsome' somehow sounds more weighty and refined."
Although fulsome's original meaning from the 13th to the 16th century was full and abundant, the negative sense had overtaken the word by the 17th century. To say today that a speech is fulsome or that a person will give a more fulsome account of himself is to risk misunderstanding or unintended guffaws - assuming there's anyone present who knows the word well. When William and Mary Morris polled several dozen word consultants for their Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (second edition, 1985) - after the phrase "fulsome praise" had appeared on the cover of former U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson's autobiography - the consultants disagreed on whether to accept the positive meanings. "You can't win them all," wrote Leo Rosten. "The usage is so common it has ceased to be offensive - to most." Robert Sherrill wrote: "Sorry, I guess I use it wrong in a different way. I use it to mean excessive, but not necessarily in a bad sense." Most of them favoured limiting fulsome to its offensive sense. Isaac Asimov said its use in a positive sense was "one of my favourite criteria of illiteracy."
If so, illiteracy is ascendant. Seeking a printed example of the negative sense of fulsome, I pored over article after article from the files for the past two years and emerged with only positive uses: fulsome praise, tributes, apologies and explanations. Perhaps, as with the incessantly abused "beg the question," it's difficult to find the occasion for the correct use. (Here's one: Those political party broadcasts were so fulsome in their claims that I needed a bath after watching them.) Or perhaps the "full" in fulsome leads, as MacInnes suggests, to the feeling that fulsome must be really full.
The battle rages eternally between the prescriptivists (who say a word means this and should not be used to mean that) and the descriptivists (who say if enough people use the word to mean that, it means that). With fulsome, the descriptivists seem to have the prescriptivists in a headlock.
Britain's cheeky Private Eye magazine gave a nod recently to television anchor Sasha Qadri, who "reported the death in Afghanistan of a soldier from the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. According to Qadri, this was a sad loss for the Royal Anglican Regiment."
When musician Scot Lang died in June, his former companion recalled a visit Lang made to Japan. According to the article, Scot "found the raw fish so unpalatable he very discretely emptied the contents of his mouth into his napkin." Since discretely means in distinct or separate parts, this would have required a talent on the order of Audrey Horne's using her tongue to tie a knot in a cherry stem in Twin Peaks. Presumably Lang was acting tactfully and unobtrusively - that is, discreetly.